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A Christmas Carol: A Riposte to Malthus

December 21, 2011

From the new bestseller Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius,by Sylvia Nasar,

A Christmas Carol, argues the economic historian James Henderson, is an attack on Malthus. 19 The novel is bursting with delicious smells and tastes. Instead of a rocky, barren, overpopulated island where food is scarce, the England of Dickens’s story is a vast Fortnum & Mason where the shelves are overflowing, the bins are bottomless, and the barrels never run dry. The Ghost of Christmas Past appears to Scrooge perched on a “kind of throne,” with heaps of “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” “Radiant” grocers, poulterers, and fruit and vegetable dealers invite Londoners into their shops to inspect luscious “pageants” of food and drink. 20

In an England characterized by New World abundance rather than Old World scarcity, the bony, barren, anorexic Ebenezer Scrooge is an anachronism. As Henderson observes, the businessman is “as oblivious to the new spirit of human sympathy as he is to the bounty with which he is surrounded.” 21 He is a diehard supporter of the treadmill and workhouse literally and figuratively. “They cost enough,”he insists, “and those who are badly off must go there.”When the Ghost of Christmas Past objects that “many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” Scrooge says coldly, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Happily, Scrooge’s flinty nature turns out to be no more set in stone than the world’s food supply is fixed. When Scrooge learns that Tiny Tim is one of the “surplus” population, he recoils in horror at the implications of his old-fashioned Malthusian religion. “No, no,” he cries, begging the Spirit to spare the little boy. “What then?” the Spirit replies mockingly. “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”22 Scrooge repents, resolves to give his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, a raise, and sends him a prize turkey for Christmas. By accepting the more hopeful, less fatalistic view of Dicken’s generation in time to alter the course of future events, Scrooge refutes the grim Malthusian premise that “the blind and brutal past” is destined to keep repeating itself.

The Cratchit’s joyous Christmas dinner is Dicken’s direct riposte to Malthus, who uses a parable about “Nature’s mighty feast” to warn of the unintended consequences of well-meaning charity. A man with no means of support asks the guests to make room for him at the table. In the past, the diners would have turned him away. Beguiled by utopian French theories, they decide to ignore the fact that there is only enough food for the invited guests. They fail to foresee when they let the newcomer join them that more gatecrashers will arrive, the food will run out before everyone has been served, and the invited guests’ enjoyment of the meal will be “destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence.”23

The Cratchit’s groaning board, wreathed with the family’s beaming faces, is the antithesis of Malthus’s tense, tightly rationed meal. In contrast to Nature’s grudging portions, there is Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding- “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedecked with Christmas holly stuck into the top” – not large enough for seconds perhaps, but ample for her family. “Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”24

The Christmas spirit was catching. By the story’s end, Scrooge had even stopped starving himself. Instead of slurping his customary bowl of gruel in solitude, the new Scrooge surprises his nephew by showing up unannounced for Christmas dinner. Needless to say, his heir hastens to set a place for him at the table.

Dickens’s hope that A Christmas Carol would strike the public like a sledgehammer was fulfilled. Six thousand copies of the novel were sold between the publicaton date of December 19 and Christmas Eve, and the tale would stay in print for the rest of Dickens’s life – and ever since.25 Dickens’s depiction of the poor earned him satirical labels such as “Mr. Sentiment.”26 but the novelist never wavered in his conviction that there was a way to improve the lot of the poor without overturning existing society.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 9:42 am

    Fascinating. I’ve never thought of A Christmas Carol as an anti-Malthusian argument. I may have to add Nasar’s book to my reading list. 🙂

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 21, 2011 11:03 am

    You can read a few pages on Amazon or Google books What is missing in this passage is the preamble in which Nasar explains more of Malthus than one usually remembers about his ideas. Even though Nasar’s book has been criticized for not living up to its title, it is a great introduction to the topic, and a delight to read.

    And, Kris, you have a stunning blog!


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